In This Article Classics and Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Studies of Films with Modern Settings
  • Teaching Antiquity with Film
  • Theoretical Reflections
  • Books Notable for Their Illustrations

Classics Classics and Cinema
Martin M. Winkler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 February 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0053


Since the cinema’s birth in 1895, Classical Antiquity has played a major part in the history of storytelling in moving images. Films either present their mythical, literary, and historical material in ancient settings, or they transpose classical themes and historical or narrative archetypes to contemporary or even future times. For most of the 20th century, classical scholars and teachers neglected the presence of Greece and Rome on the screen, although there were some honorable exceptions. (For very early examples see Teaching Antiquity with Film.) Since the 1990s, however, classical scholarship has increasingly focused on this area of reception, which is now outpacing all others. Two statements published in the Classical Review, one of the profession’s foremost book review journals, illustrate the change that occurred in less than a decade. In 1999, a reviewer began with the following statement: “The combination of classics and film studies is not a common field of interdisciplinary research” (Classical Review, new ser., 49 1999:244–246). In 2005, a reviewer observed: “Successfully—and fruitfully—the study of classics and cinema has asserted itself as a leader in the field of reception studies” (Classical Review, new ser., 55 2005:688–690, at 688). Nevertheless, the study of classics and cinema and related media (television, computer videos) is still evolving. At the same time, it is a broad and demanding field that requires a double expertise from its practitioners: a sound knowledge of all aspects of the ancient cultures on the one hand, and close familiarity with film history, technology, theory, aesthetics, and economics on the other. These are preconditions for all serious interpretive work on cinema and Antiquity. It may be true that nobody can serve two masters, but classical film philologists ought to be ready to serve nine mistresses in order to do justice to the artistic areas over which they preside: Clio (history), Calliope (epic), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Terpsichore (song and dance), Urania (astrology), Erato, Euterpe, and Polyhymnia (all poetry). These are joined by their youngest sibling: “the tenth Muse,” as poet, painter, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau has called the cinema. Naturally, these ladies expect to be loved by philological cinephiles!

General Overviews

The works listed in this section present useful orientations to Antiquity on the screen in their different ways, tracing the history and themes of films made in Europe, especially Italy—the birthplace of ancient epic cinema—and the United States. Most include whole chapters on, or at least shorter discussions of, biblical and other ancient films (Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Near Orient). Solomon 2001, de España 2009, and Aziza 2009 are good starting points in their respective languages. So is Wieber 2002, if considerably more briefly. Elley 1984 is now a classic. Richards 2008 is limited to American and British films. Elliott 2014 addresses developments since Gladiator (2000).

  • Aziza, Claude. 2009. Le péplum, un mauvais genre. Paris: Klincksieck.

    E-mail Citation »

    The peplum—a sword-and-sandal genre (the term here used to include historical epics and more)—gets a brief but affectionate presentation and defense in question-and-answer format.

  • de España, Rafael. 2009. La pantalla épica: Los héroes de la Antigüedad vistos por el cine. Madrid: T&B Editores.

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    Affectionate, detailed narrative history of epic cinema in over 400 pages. The best starting point in Spanish. Some elegant black-and-white illustrations.

  • Elley, Derek. 1984. The epic film: Myth and history. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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    Intelligent survey, including the Bible and early Middle Ages. Extensive black-and-white illustrations from films about Classical, biblical, and medieval times. Although a bit outdated, still useful as supplementary course text. Out of print.

  • Elliott, Andrew B. R., ed. 2014. The return of the epic film: Genre, aesthetics and history in the 21st century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748684021.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Essays on different aspects of epic films, mainly ancient and medieval. Topics include Rome and America as empires, the importance of color and CGI, and the Harry Potter films.

  • Richards, Jeffrey. 2008. Hollywood’s ancient worlds. London: Continuum.

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    Well-judged presentation by major film scholar. Valuable first chapter places films in their 19th-century cultural contexts. Highly suitable as main text for undergraduate courses.

  • Solomon, Jon. 2001. The ancient world in the cinema. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Many black-and-white illustrations of films set in Classical, biblical, Egyptian, and Near-Eastern Antiquity. Useful as main or supplementary text for courses. The original edition (1978) was the first book ever written on the subject and started it all.

  • Wieber, Anja. 2002. Auf Sandalen durch die Jahrtausende: Eine Einführung in den Themenkreis “Antike und Film.” In Bewegte Antike: Antike Themen im modernen Film. Edited by Ulrich Eigler, 4–40. Stuttgart: Metzler.

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    Introductory overview.

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